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3 cities face a climate dilemma: to build or not to build homes in risky places

New homes are under construction in June at a housing development near Buckeye, Ariz. A growing number of local governments are considering limits on homebuilding in the face of floods, droughts and wildfires driven by climate change.
Mario Tama
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Getty Images
New homes are under construction in June at a housing development near Buckeye, Ariz. A growing number of local governments are considering limits on homebuilding in the face of floods, droughts and wildfires driven by climate change.

With climate-fueled disasters killing hundreds of Americans annually and costing communities billions of dollars, a growing number of local governments are asking a basic question: Are there some places where people shouldn't build homes?

It's one of the most difficult choices a community can make. Local governments typically want more housing, not less, because budgets are generally funded by the property taxes from those homes. At the same time, a nationwide housing shortage is creating even more pressure to build.

"[If] you're a local government, of course you want to develop," says Katharine Mach, who studies climate change and housing at the University of Miami. "You're building a community. You're supporting livelihoods. You're supporting tourism oftentimes. [And] there's the pragmatic dimension of, you need the property taxes."

As a result, putting limits on homebuilding can feel like a non-starter for the local officials who generally control land-use decisions.

But with often deadly extreme-weather disasters on the rise, the problem can no longer be ignored. In the last five years, floods, wildfires, severe storms and droughts have caused more than $580 billion in damage and killed hundreds of people. And some states are passing laws that put conditions on future growth.

NPR visited three places that are grappling with the question of how to stop building homes in harm's way — with varying degrees of success. Whether it's flooding, wildfires or drought that threatens a community, similar conversations are now playing out across the United States.

California: Building homes in places that could burn

A development of almost 3,000 homes planned for a valley in Santee, Calif., has ignited a debate in the community about housing and wildfire risk.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
A development of almost 3,000 homes planned for a valley in Santee, Calif., has ignited a debate in the community about housing and wildfire risk.

Two things are painfully apparent for many California cities: the massive statewide housing shortage and a growing danger from wildfires.

With some of the most expensive housing in the U.S., California's cities face requirements to build more housing to boost supply. But where to put it is tricky. About one-quarter of California is at high risk of burning, according to state wildfire authorities. And as the climate gets hotter, tens of thousands of homes have been lost in destructive wildfires in the last five years alone.

With some of the most expensive housing in the country, California's cities, like San Diego seen here, face requirements to build more housing to boost supply.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
With some of the most expensive housing in the country, California's cities, like San Diego seen here, face requirements to build more housing to boost supply.

With few statewide regulations, navigating housing needs and wildfire risk falls to local governments, like Santee, Calif., a largely suburban town on the outskirts of San Diego.

Santee is nestled next to miles of open space, and at the edge of town, a major new development of almost 3,000 homes, known as Fanita Ranch, is being planned. For years, residents like Van Collinsworth have fought the project, which would be tucked away in the golden, shrubby hills. As a wildfire inspector by day who examines flammable brush, he knows the city is at risk. It barely escaped the 2003 Cedar Fire, which destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

"I don't think the project should be built — that's the bottom line," he says. "I don't think developers and decision-makers are willing to acknowledge that we are living in a new era of extreme weather and really grapple with what that means for the desire to build and build and build."

Collinsworth directs Preserve Wild Santee, an environmental group that joined several others to file a lawsuit to stop the development after the city approved it in 2020. A judge agreed, finding that the developer didn't adequately analyze how long it would take residents to evacuate during a fire or whether they could do so safely.

Van Collinsworth has been fighting development on the outskirts of Santee for decades. "It's a recipe for chaos and potentially death and disaster," he says.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
Van Collinsworth has been fighting development on the outskirts of Santee for decades. "It's a recipe for chaos and potentially death and disaster," he says.

The developer, HomeFed Corp., proposed the project again in 2022, this time with a phased evacuation plan that works by zones, so neighborhoods could be cleared more efficiently. Houses would be built with fire-resistant materials and have fire sprinklers. Inspectors would check that flammable vegetation was cleared twice per year, something that would be paid for by homeowners association fees. Those funds would also ensure vegetation was cleared around the outskirts of the community, creating a buffer.

"Other parts of the country are in a hurricane zone, and they have codes and standards that say, if you build to these standards, you can go ahead and build a home," says Kent Aden, senior vice president of HomeFed. "We have all these standards for building in wildfire zones, but there seems to be a resistance to allow projects to move forward that meet or exceed those standards."

Around a quarter of California's land is at high risk for burning, which means cities are facing tough choices about where to put much-needed new housing.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
Around a quarter of California's land is at high risk for burning, which means cities are facing tough choices about where to put much-needed new housing.

In 2023, the City Council approved the project again, with several members saying they were satisfied with the wildfire safety measures after local fire officials supported the plan.

"We tried to take everything we can learn from the fires plus even more, making it, in my opinion, the best example of what can be done to make a defensible community," Aden says.

Collinsworth and environmental groups filed a second lawsuit to halt the project, and it will be heard in court next year. It's one of several lawsuits aimed at stopping developments in California, and some of these suits were supported by state Attorney General Rob Bonta. He recently released guidance for cities about how to analyze wildfire risk.

Still, while California leads the nation in some wildfire policies, like building codes for individual homes, there are few statewide laws about making development decisions in high-risk zones. Those decisions fall to local governments alone. A bill now being considered from state Sen. Ben Allen would require developers to analyze fire behavior and create evacuation plans in cooperation with local fire authorities as part of their projects.

To reduce wildfire risk, the developer of Fanita Ranch says the homes will be built with wildfire in mind, like using fire-resistant materials and requiring mandatory inspections for flammable brush.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
To reduce wildfire risk, the developer of Fanita Ranch says the homes will be built with wildfire in mind, like using fire-resistant materials and requiring mandatory inspections for flammable brush.

Previous legislative bills requiring local governments to create standards for approving housing in risky areas have failed amid pushback from the building industry.

"If we site houses and infrastructure in places better, safer, that makes it easier to keep people safe as climate change intensifies into the future," Mach says. "But it's not as if we have easy choices of just building in the safe places, because there are no places that are devoid of hazards right now."

Arizona: Limiting growth where water is scarce, with a catch

Arizona's population has quadrupled in the last 50 years, but climate change and a long-running drought are straining water supplies like never before.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
Arizona's population has quadrupled in the last 50 years, but climate change and a long-running drought are straining water supplies like never before.

Located in a desert, cities around Phoenix are constantly facing questions of water supply — not just at water management agencies but also at city councils considering where to develop. That's because Arizona has one of the most powerful laws in the country linking water with the decision to build.

In Casa Grande, about an hour south of Phoenix, Mayor Craig McFarland knows his city's future is linked to water. Housing is already in high demand. Industry is moving into the area, with both a battery and an electric car manufacturer offering thousands of jobs near town.

"We have this huge need for workforce housing, and that workforce housing needs a place to go," McFarland says. "And so that's why all of a sudden the rush is on."

Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland holds a map showing land with and without a water supply. "Casa Grande will continue to grow," he says. "We have to be frugal with the water we have."
Lauren Sommer / NPR
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NPR
Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland holds a map showing land with and without a water supply. "Casa Grande will continue to grow," he says. "We have to be frugal with the water we have."

But whether that housing can be built is a question. A two-decade drought in the Southwest has triggered cutbacks to Arizona's water supply, as climate change strains the Colorado River, one of the state's biggest water sources. Underground aquifers are the state's other major water source. But in Pinal County, where Casa Grande is located, overpumping of aquifers is a big concern.

So when it comes to development, McFarland consults a map that looks like a patchwork quilt. Some parcels of land are blue, which means a water supply would be ensured for new homes. But many other parcels are white. There, developers would have to find their own water supply in order to build. State law limits growth where water is in short supply, requiring new subdivisions to show they have 100 years of water for their customers.

"Arizona is the only state in the country that requires 100 years' worth of water," McFarland says. "It's a consumer protection."

This year, regulators announced they would not be guaranteeing water supplies for new subdivisions around Phoenix, limiting future construction. That has been the situation for several years in Casa Grande.

Still, McFarland isn't discouraged. In the long term, the city is looking at water recycling and conservation. And in the short term, building hasn't stopped.

That's because developers have found a profitable workaround. Arizona's water law applies only when lots are subdivided into smaller lots for six or more homes and those houses are either sold or made available for long-term rentals. Instead, developers have turned to building short-term rentals on a single large piece of land.

Not far from the center of town, construction workers are putting the finishing touches on new single-story homes in a 331-unit development. Water supply hasn't been a barrier to building because these units will be part of one large rental project.

"We don't need an assured water supply because it's one lot," says Greg Hancock of Hancock Builders, which is constructing the project. "Although it's 331 units, it's one lot."

Casa Grande, like several other Arizona cities, has seen a boom in these "build to rent" projects. Hancock says after decades in the business, his company started building them only recently and has more than 10,000 units built or in development.

"It's been one of the greatest housing markets forever," he says. "People will not stop moving here."

But with the growth, that unaccounted-for water demand is raising red flags. Already, Arizona water regulators say there won't be enough groundwater to meet existing needs over the next 100 years.

"If you build houses and you rent them, there's no way to go back and undo the fact that they're there and people are living in them," says Kathleen Ferris, senior research fellow at the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University.

Ferris helped write Arizona's 100-year water law four decades ago. She says its strength is that it tethers building decisions to water decisions. Back then, build-to-rent wasn't common. Now, she says, the state is reaching a pivotal moment when all water use needs to be accounted for.

"Climate change and aridification have come on so much faster than most people thought," she says. "Yes, there is still opportunity for growth, but there needs to be an understanding of the limits."

In Pinal County, Ariz., developers must find a water supply to build a traditional subdivision. Large rental projects don't face that requirement.
Lauren Sommer / NPR
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NPR
In Pinal County, Ariz., developers must find a water supply to build a traditional subdivision. Large rental projects don't face that requirement.

This year, Arizona legislators drafted two state bills to close the loophole, which would require rental projects to have a water supply. Both failed to pass. Some cities pushed back, saying it would limit a key way to address the housing shortage. Now, a working group convened by Gov. Katie Hobbs is examining the issue.

Still, the overriding conversation is about growth. With droughts expected to worsen, Arizona's water law is pushing cities to look at boosting their water supplies locally, whether that's through building water-recycling projects or amping up conservation.

Arizona's groundwater law is a rarity among Western states, requiring cities to think about how building decisions will affect the water supply over the next century.
Lauren Sommer / NPR
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NPR
Arizona's groundwater law is a rarity among Western states, requiring cities to think about how building decisions will affect the water supply over the next century.

"I used to say, 'Maybe we're at our limit. Maybe we can't build any more houses,'" says Pinal County Supervisor Stephen Miller, who works on water issues. "So now I say, 'If we're going to maintain any type of growth, we have to bring water in.'"

New Jersey: A little bit of everything adds up to a lot of flood protection

New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the U.S. and one of the most flood prone. Nonetheless, the state has made progress in protecting people from flooding.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the U.S. and one of the most flood prone. Nonetheless, the state has made progress in protecting people from flooding.

New Jersey may offer a blueprint for how to get people out of harm's way while continuing to grow and prosper economically, according to climate experts.

The marshy coastal state is a decade into a systematic statewide effort to protect residents from floodwaters. And those efforts appear to be successfully limiting new construction of homes in flood-prone areas and better protecting people who live in flood zones or are considering moving into them.

"This is an area where New Jersey is very proactive," says A.R. Siders, a climate researcher at the University of Delaware who studies climate risk and housing.

Heavy rain caused flooding in Middlesex County, N.J. — home to Woodbridge Township — in October 2021. Woodbridge is more than a decade into a multipronged effort to reduce the number of people living in places at high risk for flooding.
Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Heavy rain caused flooding in Middlesex County, N.J. — home to Woodbridge Township — in October 2021. Woodbridge is more than a decade into a multipronged effort to reduce the number of people living in places at high risk for flooding.

New Jersey has attacked its flooding problem from every angle. Since Superstorm Sandy devastated the region in 2012, New Jersey has passed regulations that make it harder to build new homes in flood zones. If you want to substantially renovate a home that already exists in a flood-prone area, the new rules require major upgrades to protect the house from water, such as putting the whole house on stilts or moving air conditioning units and other crucial utilities off the ground so they can survive a flood.

This year, New Jersey also passed some of the strongest flood disclosure laws in the country, which means that people who are buying homes in the state get information about whether their prospective new house has flooded in the past or is likely to flood in the future.

The town of Woodbridge, N.J., has removed homes from some parts of town that frequently flood. Today, where houses once stood, there is a wilderness trail. The open space allows water to spread out after big storms without damaging homes.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
The town of Woodbridge, N.J., has removed homes from some parts of town that frequently flood. Today, where houses once stood, there is a wilderness trail. The open space allows water to spread out after big storms without damaging homes.

And the state has purchased more than 1,000 houses in the last decade through a permanent home-buyout program known as Blue Acres, which acquires homes that have flooded and knocks them down to provide more open space for floodwater.

As a result, New Jersey appears to be doing significantly better than the national average when it comes to the number of homes in flood zones, according to preliminary findings by a group of climate scientists including Siders and Mach.

That's particularly notable since New Jersey is both the most densely populated state in the country and one of the most flood prone.

New Jersey is surrounded by water. Living by the shore is one thing that draws people to the state, but as sea levels rise and storms get more intense, flood damage to homes is skyrocketing.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
New Jersey is surrounded by water. Living by the shore is one thing that draws people to the state, but as sea levels rise and storms get more intense, flood damage to homes is skyrocketing.

The town of Woodbridge, N.J., has been on the front lines of New Jersey's strategy.

After Superstorm Sandy flooded the town, the local government decided to support home buyouts.

"[It's] not something we wanted to do, but we had to do it," says longtime Mayor John McCormac. "We didn't want to lose residents."

But it was equally unthinkable that homes would be rebuilt in places that had flooded, he says. And there were alternative ways for the town to grow economically.

Stephanie and Nicholas Cepparulo's home in Lambertville, N.J., was destroyed in a flash flood in 2021. The property had been in Stephanie's family for over 100 years, but with climate change causing more severe storms, it was no longer a safe place to live. They chose to accept a home buyout, with the support of their local mayor and a case manager from the state government.
/ Nicholas Cepparulo
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Nicholas Cepparulo
Stephanie and Nicholas Cepparulo's home in Lambertville, N.J., was destroyed in a flash flood in 2021. The property had been in Stephanie's family for over 100 years, but with climate change causing more severe storms, it was no longer a safe place to live. They chose to accept a home buyout, with the support of their local mayor and a case manager from the state government.

Because home buyouts are voluntary, the town could move forward only if people agreed to move. McCormac remembers a town meeting he presided over in the high school auditorium.

"It was difficult. People were angry," he says. "It wasn't an easy process. You know, somebody's talking to you about moving out of their home that they've been in for 60 years. And it's their biggest investment in their life."

Similar conversations have played out across the state in recent years, says New Jersey's chief resilience officer, Nick Angarone. "These are very complicated and very difficult conversations to have," he says. "You're talking about some of the basic principles of the country, you know? Where and what you can do with your property."

Reducing the number of homes in harm's way isn't easy. In New Jersey, local flood plain managers and state case workers often spend years working with individual families to help them move to higher ground. Some people choose to stay in repeatedly flooded homes. "These are very complicated and very difficult conversations to have," says Nick Angarone, New Jersey's chief resilience officer.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
Reducing the number of homes in harm's way isn't easy. In New Jersey, local flood plain managers and state case workers often spend years working with individual families to help them move to higher ground. Some people choose to stay in repeatedly flooded homes. "These are very complicated and very difficult conversations to have," says Nick Angarone, New Jersey's chief resilience officer.

But unlike in other states, New Jersey residents who are considering a home buyout are assigned a case manager who can help navigate both the paperwork and the emotions that come along with such a momentous decision.

"Our case managers are sort of our secret sauce," says Courtney Wald-Wittkop, who runs the Blue Acres program. "They're very good about developing that rapport and relationship with the homeowners."

One way to reduce the danger from climate-related flooding is to elevate homes so that the living space is above floodwaters. Tom Flynn, the flood plain manager in Woodbridge, N.J., says homes that are in high-risk areas must be elevated if they're renovated.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
One way to reduce the danger from climate-related flooding is to elevate homes so that the living space is above floodwaters. Tom Flynn, the flood plain manager in Woodbridge, N.J., says homes that are in high-risk areas must be elevated if they're renovated.

One reason New Jersey is able to match people up with experienced case managers is that, unlike other state buyout programs, Blue Acres exists all the time, not just after major disasters. Because it's permanent, it's more accessible to both homeowners and local officials, without whose support buyouts cannot happen.

Ultimately, more than 180 homeowners in Woodbridge decided to accept buyouts and move away, says McCormac, the mayor.

The homes that remain in flood-prone areas of Woodbridge are subject to New Jersey's new, tighter regulations that require them to be elevated. Instead of building new homes in marshy areas, Woodbridge is allowing more units to be built in denser parts of town near train stations and highways. The town's population is stable, and its economy is growing.

The town's flood plain manager, Tom Flynn, says the strategy is also paying off in the form of less flood damage. When the remnants of Hurricane Ida dropped 8 inches of rain in Woodbridge in 2021, Flynn says, it flooded dozens of homes instead of hundreds.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Despite proactive steps to prevent new homes from being built in flood-prone areas, New Jersey still has a significant flooding problem. As the Earth continues to warm, the number of safe places to build will only narrow further.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
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NPR
Despite proactive steps to prevent new homes from being built in flood-prone areas, New Jersey still has a significant flooding problem. As the Earth continues to warm, the number of safe places to build will only narrow further.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
Ryan Kellman
Ryan Kellman is a producer and visual reporter for NPR's science desk. Kellman joined the desk in 2014. In his first months on the job, he worked on NPR's Peabody Award-winning coverage of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He has won several other notable awards for his work: He is a Fulbright Grant recipient, he has received a John Collier Award in Documentary Photography, and he has several first place wins in the WHNPA's Eyes of History Awards. He holds a master's degree from Ohio University's School of Visual Communication and a B.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute.